Ice cream icon promotes his new passion

Ben Cohen takes aim at Citizens United with initiative

bshannon@theolympian.comMay 20, 2014 

Set-up near the Student Union Building at South Puget Sound Community College Monday Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen handed out free ice cream and offered to stamp any currency in support of Initiative 1329. With a hand stamp reading "Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians" Cohen's visit is sponsored by the Olympia-Move-To-Amend organization, which is backing I-1329 which urges an amendment to the Constitution which would clarify that Constitutional rights apply to natural persons not corporations and authorize greater regulation of political contributions and expenditures.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian Buy Photo

Ben Cohen and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck brought a distinctly political message to South Sound on Monday.

The retired co-founder of the popular dessert brand was in Olympia to help get voters to sign petitions putting Initiative 1329 — and its message of getting big money out of politics — onto Washington’s ballot in November.

Backers say they have 70,000 of the more than 246,000 valid voter signatures they’ll need by July 3 to qualify the measure. It’s a long and difficult road, but Cohen and the campaign say it’s worth doing after voters in Montana and Colorado approved similar calls in 2012 for a constitutional amendment.

“I think this is the root cause of most of our problems in government,” said Cohen, who co-founded the ice cream venture eventually sold in 2000 to Unilever. “Our government is essentially bought and paid for by corporations and the wealthy elite that are giving what is called campaign contributions — but which are legalized bribery — to politicians.”

I-1329 takes aim — as voters in Colorado and Montana did in 2012 and activists in other states have done by other means — at the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. By a 5-to-4 margin, the court equated spending with free speech in campaigns and in effect freed corporations and labor unions to make unlimited independent expenditures in campaigns.

U.S. Senate leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, last week said he would push legislation forward to begin the constitutional amendment process, although it stands no chance in the GOP-controlled House. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blasted Reid’s action as an attack on the First Amendment and free speech.

Cohen, a liberal, thinks otherwise, and he blames special-interest money for everything from usurious rates on credit card debt to an energy policy that protects fossil fuel companies and defense spending he considers excessive.

He is leading a separate and national Stamp Stampede campaign that calls for a constitutional amendment and stamps red-ink messages onto greenbacks. The stamps say, “Not To Be Used For Bribing Politicians” or “Stamp Money Out Of Politics.”

Libby Carr, manager of the WAmend.org campaign, said Cohen’s effort is helpful, because it’s part of the larger campaign to change the Constitution, in effect undoing the Citizens United ruling and other decisions by courts that opened doors to what she considers excess spending by interest groups in politics.

Calvin Borgaard, a welding and tech science student at South Puget Sound, signed one of the I-1329 petitions. “They make a good argument,” Borgaard said.

As an example of corrosive efforts of money, Borgaard cited a recent action by the Federal Communications Commission that could let private companies pay to have their Internet traffic in effect move ahead of others’.

Carr acknowledged the campaign has a long way to go. “We’re guardedly optimistic. We are going to go to the end. If it doesn’t work this time, we’ll do it again next time. There’s a movement,’’ she said.

Cohen hand-stamped money Monday but is bringing his Amend-O-Matic Stamp Mobile to Washington for the campaign’s final six weeks. The Rube Goldberg-style machine stamps paper money with his campaign slogans, and he plans to fire it up during Seattle’s Folk Life Festival, which starts late this week.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com

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